Tens of thousands of people yesterday filled an avenue in Moscow to protest against the alleged rigging of parliamentary polls, in a new challenge to Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin’s authority.
Clutching white balloons and banners with the slogan “For Free Elections,” the protesters thronged Sakharov Avenue, symbolically named after the Nobel-winning dissident Andrei Sakharov who for years defied the former USSR.
Police said 29,000 had turned out for the Moscow rally, but organizers said 120,000 people had entirely filled to bursting point Sakharov Avenue, which was closed off to traffic for the protest.
The Associated Press reported the protesters had packed the avenue, which it said could hold nearly 100,000 people.
The protest increases the pressure on Putin to implement radical changes in Russia’s tightly controlled political system as he plans to return to the presidency in March elections after his four-year stint as prime minister.
Some protesters held up pictures of Putin with a giant condom draped over his head in the style of an Egyptian pharaoh, in reference to his sneering dismissal of the rallies as resembling an anti-AIDS campaign.
In a hugely provocative speech, blogger Alexei Navalny, who has emerged as one of the protest leaders, vowed that 1 million people would attend the next rally to demand new parliamentary elections.
“I see enough people here to take the White House [the seat of the Russian government] right now, but we are peaceful people and we will not do that — for the moment,” he said. “We know what we will do. We will go out onto the street until they give back what is ours. Next time, we will bring 1 million people onto the streets of Moscow.”
“We do not want to scare anyone, but I promise you that next year, the leaders will change and power will belong to those to whom it should belong. Power will belong to the people,” Navalny said to cheers.
Amid a festive atmosphere despite sub-zero temperatures, loudspeakers played the legendary song of Soviet rock musician Viktor Tsoi We Want Change!
A banner held up by a group of protesters said: “We woke up and this is only the beginning.”
Incensed by claims of wholesale violations in the polls that handed a reduced majority to Putin’s United Russia party, tens of thousands of people already took to the streets across Russia on Dec. 10.
These protests are the biggest show of public anger in Russia since the chaotic 1990s and the first sign of a growing challenge to Putin’s 12-year domination of the country.
Former Russian finance minister Alexei Kudrin for the first time joined the opposition protest in Moscow and warned that Russia risked a new revolution if there was no dialogue between protesters and the Kremlin.
“There needs to be a platform for dialogue, otherwise there will be a revolution and we lose the chance that we have today for a peaceful transformation” of Russia, he said.
The Soviet Union’s last leader, Mikhail Gorbachev, 80, who has been virulently critical of the elections, had been considering attending, but had not appeared as of press time.
The mass protests have been sanctioned by the authorities, in a major turnaround by the police, who arrested hundreds of people who took part in demonstrations in the immediate aftermath of the elections.
In an unexpected boost to the protesters, an advisory Kremlin rights panel said overnight the new parliament had been discredited by the accusations of fraud and fresh elections should be called.